Review: Karen's School Picture by Ann M Martin

What Baby-Sitters Club fan could ever forget Karen, the imaginative and effervescent stepsister of club president Kristy? After all, Kristy's new family situation and the bond that was quickly forged between the stepsisters was a very important feature of the series. Soon enough, Karen had her own spin-off series pitched at a slightly younger audience, and from then on many fans of the Baby-Sitters Club would discover the series through the Baby-Sitters Little Sister series.

Karen's School Picture is the fifth book in the series. Like the previous novels in the series it covers topics and lessons that might be important to a child who is six, almost seven years old. Karen lives her life between two radically different households and families. Along with her four year old brother, Andrew, she spends most of her time living in what she has termed the 'Little House' with her mother, her stepfather Seth and their pets. Every second weekend she stays in what she calls the 'Big House' with her father, her stepmother Elizabeth, and Elizabeth's four children Charlie, Sam and Kristy who are all teenagers, and David Michael who is just slightly older than Karen. The household is also home to many pets and Karen believes that Mrs Porter the eccentric older lady who lives next door is actually a witch, which becomes a plot point in various parts of the series. (And was later cleverly adapted into the Babysitters Club Netflix series.) Karen also has a best friend who lives near each house, and all three girls attend the same private school.

The major plot of Karen's School Picture is, unsurprisingly, that school picture day is coming up. Like the other girls in her class, Karen is very excited and looking forward to having her photo taken and giving the camera her very best movie star smile. Unfortunately, Karen is also suffering from headaches and some somewhat sudden and exaggerated blurring of her vision. A visit to an eye specialist reveals that Karen needs glasses. Not only that, Karen needs two pairs of glasses, one for everyday use and another pair for reading. While Karen quickly gets over the shock and chooses some pretty frames, another problem soon occurs when she encounters bullying from a boy in her class. Like most bullies, Ricky is quick to play on Karen's insecurities and generally gets away with it while the class teacher remains steadfastly oblivious and occasionally says or does things to make the bullying worse. While the reader eventually discovers that Ricky's bullying is rooted in insecurity--it turns out that Ricky too needs glasses and he doesn't take the news nearly as well as Karen. He also experiences bullying at the hands of some of the other boys from school, and is humiliated when it is Karen and some of the other girls who rush to his defence. Finally, Ricky plays his trump card, reminding Karen that she cannot look like a movie star in the upcoming class picture if she's wearing glasses. In turn, this leaves Karen with a dilemma, until self acceptance eventually wins out.

Overall this one is an interesting read for kids that blends realism with themes that are slightly exaggerated--often a trademark of Ann M Martin's writing. The author gets the themes of bullying spot on--Ricky, a victim of bullying himself, becomes a bully, playing on Karen's insecurities to try and bring down an otherwise happy and self-confident girl. Unlike Ricky, Karen has friends who will back her up, the ability to come up with solutions and some compassion for her tormentor, showing the reader that bullies often pick those with qualities that they lack within themselves. Also, wearing glasses is a huge deal for a child of that age and this one explains the process and the need for them quite well, though the sudden deterioration of Karen's eyesight seems somewhat unrealistic. 

An interesting read for kids, and a slight nostalgia trip for grown up BSC fans.


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